This was originally submitted to Roy Greenslade as part of my MA assessment in Journalism & Society (a module on media history, structure and ethics).
John Lloyd argued in his book What The Media Are Doing To Our Politics that the treatment of politics (and politicians) by the British media has degraded political discourse and therefore threatens our democracy. But many journalists disagree.
Who is right and why?
The media in the twenty first century are in Britain at the height of their powers.
In 2013 the population watched on average 28 hours of television a week and listened to 24 hours of radio a day. Nearly 3.5 million people read a daily or Sunday newspaper, and 25 million people accessed the Internet – and these numbers are ever-growing.
In today’s society, with such a huge audience to enthral, the British media projects itself as having a central role to play in the construction and preservation of democratic life. They are the voice for the citizen, and act as the conduit between subjects and leaders, citizens and politicians, officials and citizens, citizens and citizens.
The media’s role in political coverage is to: provide information such as facts, statistics and policies, offer deliberation in the form of debate, analysis, comment or opinion, and to challenge power – to hold it to account. But the information relayed to the audience is selective: “The media provides a window on the world. But only a bit is let in at any one time, leaving people with a distorted and blinkered view of events,” says Dave Prentis of Unison. “What doesn’t come through the window simply never happened” (Prentis, 2013).
Political discourse in the media is for most people the only way in which they ever encounter politics, so to a mass audience who remain none the wiser, this concept is potentially threatening. How can the media manipulate the public perception of a political figure? John Lloyd in his book What The Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004) is right to question the British media’s intentions when covering politics since in the past they have shown themselves to be destructive of public communication and the democratic process.
I do have inclination to believe that the media has over a period of time sensationalised and thus tainted British politics. Firstly, middle-market and redtop tabloids can be blamed for the “sexing up” of political journalism (Kane, 2004). The tabloids, increasingly, have used politics and politicians much more instrumentally, seeing them either as a potential source of scandal – sex, corruption, obvious incompetence and also, polemically, as figures who could be held up as an example or, more often, trashed. This course of exposure relies upon the concept that the public has a right to know the private behaviour of the political elite – and of those prominent in every sphere of public life. Journalists are quick to conjure up false drama in their writing in order to create psychologically gratifying narratives. Readers revel in the enjoyment of the revelation of ‘secrets’, which “spice up” British politics (Leigh, 2005). But the prying into sexual deviancy is an immediate example of a way in which the media has degraded political discourse and threatens democracy. Producing such material, subjects politicians to trials of public opinion based upon their private lives, rather than their policies. Nigel Bowles writes that highly influential journalists appear to be blindsided by their “moral mission to make events and characters more transparent”, by instead subjecting them to “public inspection and judgement” (2013). Similarly, tabloids such as The Sun and The Daily Mail also have a tendency to use their popularity to drum up and promote “strong, abrasive campaigns” (Bowles et al, 2013) against policies and individuals, which further demean political discourse.
But politicians too tend to play the game. Notably, The News of the World phone-hacking scandal illuminated the extent to which British political leaders sought to develop and maintain close relationships with senior newspaper executives and editors. The assumed power of the tabloids to influence public opinion meant that even the grossest insults of and misrepresentations about, individual politicians, their parties, and polices would be quickly forgiven in the search for favourable coverage when it mattered. Lloyd rightly emphasises that politics and politicians depend on the media for access to people whether they like it or not. Just as the media uses them, they are also using the media, since after all; political power in a democracy cannot sustain itself without engagement and debate.
The media are ravenous for conflict, splits, rows and failure. What better way to facilitate these than through interview and debate broadcasts? In constructing live debates, Lloyd suggests the media are giving politicians a platform for their “self-interest and egos” hereby-turning politics into a farcical, spectator sport (2004). This year for example, the UK General Election party leader interviews with Jeremy Paxman hosted by Sky News and Channel 4 News resembled a tournament. Paxman appeared to forget his role as an unbiased mediator, by confusing aggression with investigation, and acting openly cynical and abrasive. The purpose of an interview and debate is to allow candidates to display how they perform individually, and to create every opportunity for them to directly engage with each other in a civil fashion, and to let an audience judge them for themselves. But today’s candidates can engage with each other in all sorts of ways (via social media for one), and I believe we do not need a telegenic TV moderator to sit there while candidates spew talking points at each other. These ‘debates’ have reduced hard-core political discourse, to phony entertainment spectacles, not serious news events. As well as degrading politics, Justin Green further acknowledges that: “High ratings does not a strong political process make” (2013). Ultimately, the debates may draw in immense viewing figures, but these figures are not mirrored in the voting polls.
Lloyd blames the media for the degrading of political discourse because it is as a result of the creation of these spectacles that politicians have learnt to arm themselves. In interviews for instance, politicians are defensive where they are not bland and journalists are uncouth where they are not probing. Media training received by politicians has also made them insipid, guarded and able to change subject. All of which lead to an unsatisfactory result when watching them in televised scenarios.
The media themselves also become so disengaged from independent news judgment that no-one can tell how far they are giving an account of the truth, or whether they are being prevented from doing so, or whether they are reacting to a false charge with fake, or overdrawn charges of their own. This in turn severely hampers the public’s knowledge of the overall democratic landscape. Without an open media and unbiased political discourse, the public cannot adequately formulate opinions and cannot vote in a fair manner.
In conclusion, the media’s need for decisive headlines encourages “quick, extreme stances to be taken” (Skinner et al, 2005) but the public, and democracy, suffers as a result. The rapid-fire sequence of simple, emotional snapshots staged to increase popularity replaces discourse as the basis of politics. Furthermore, journalistic consideration and portrayal of candidates rests often on “meaningless probing” (Green, 2013). As it stands – many voices are unrepresented or caricatured and misinformation can be “peddled uncorrected” causing reputations to be “shredded” (O’Neill, 2007). The British public is hence deprived of the opportunity to understand, and to make their own minds up about the explanations advanced for policies, which may be of importance. Mistakes or distortions can also create what Onora O’Neill calls a “culture of suspicion” (2007) and mistrust amongst audiences. Inaccurate reporting hence destabilizes trust and in turn, threatens democracy. Presently, exaggerated reporting is taken as the truth, for the public sees no reason to doubt a respected newspaper or a public service broadcaster – even if they could be distorting or magnifying the truth. Viewers and readers have become numb. They no longer know what to believe. This has led them to stop having trust in the government, which consequently threatens democracy. The media is therefore currently not a suitable arena for government action. Despite dominating most judgments, the media’s influential role, becomes the attrition of confidence in politics, political discourse, and democracy.